Kentucky prison population and costs expected to grow next ten years

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – The CJPAC Justice Reinvestment Work Group is projecting that, without significant legislative solutions, Kentucky’s inmate population will increase by 19 percent over the next ten years, overwhelming jails and prisons and burdening taxpayers with nearly $600 million in additional costs.

Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley, who chairs the group, said the growth is unsustainable given Kentucky’s pension crisis and other budgetary needs.

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“We’ve reached a critical point that demands fiscal prudence and stronger accountability for both offenders and government,” Secretary Tilley said. “The good news is we have an opportunity to lower costs and improve public safety if we enact common-sense legislation next year. It’s time to bring stability and efficacy to our justice system.”

The Work Group was established in August to perform a comprehensive review of Kentucky’s criminal justice system and advance policy changes that will safely lower the prison population while simultaneously improving public safety. The work is needed to bring Kentucky in line with the 31 states across the country that decreased both their prison populations and their crime rates between 2010 and 2015

Through an in-depth analysis of data from the Department of Corrections, the Work Group found that admissions to prison grew 32 percent in just five years, driven by low-level, nonviolent offenses. Sixty-five percent of admissions in 2016 were sentenced for drug and property offenses.

The Work Group also found that Kentucky imprisons women at a disproportionately high rate compared to other states. In 2015, Kentucky had the fifth highest female imprisonment rate in the country, almost twice the national average. Female admissions increased 54 percent from 2012 to 2016, driven by a 72 percent growth in admissions for Class D offenses, Kentucky’s lowest felony class.

At the same time, a 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 13 percent of Kentucky children have an incarcerated parent – the highest rate in the country at nearly double the national average.

To cope with aging infrastructure and overcrowding, state officials earlier this month announced plans to move 800 prisoners to a private facility in Lee County. Officials say that, if the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders continues to swell, Kentucky will be forced to consider expanding reliance on costly private prisons.

“Without changes next year, there is no question we will have to contract for two additional private prisons or build new prisons, costing taxpayers millions and providing little benefit to public safety,” Secretary Tilley said. “However, this Work Group has gone through a data-driven reform process that offers better solutions — not only to reduce recidivism but also to better protect our communities.”

Daniel Cameron, the spokesperson for the Smart on Crime Coalition, and a member of the Work Group, said of the findings “the Commonwealth must rethink how we are investing our resources. We are spending a significant amount of money incarcerating low level, nonviolent offenders when this funding could be directed at programs and services that have been found to hold offenders accountable while also helping to prevent reoffending.”

Rep. Jason Nemes, who is a member of the Work Group, said “our prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders with serious substance abuse and mental health problems, and we know that there are better ways to protect public safety and keep families whole than warehousing these people. The first step toward making resources available for treatment and rehabilitation is to take a serious look at our sentencing system, and decide how to prioritize our prison beds for people we’re scared of, rather than those we’re mad at or disappointed in.”

On Dec. 18, the Work Group plans to release a comprehensive set of recommendations to hold offenders accountable, create pathways to treatment rather than incarceration, and address the disproportionate number of women in Kentucky’s jails and prisons.

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Tom Kenny joined ABC 36 News in June of 2001 as a General Assignment Reporter. A native of Peoria, Illinois, he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications from Western Illinois University. He currently anchors ABC 36 News at 5pm, 6pm and 11pm. Tom has more than three decades of experience in broadcast journalism. He is the only broadcast journalist in Lexington television history to be honored with a national Edward R. Murrow Award. Tom was recognized for reporting on a story that gave a rare glimpse inside the secretive world of the Federal Witness Protection Program. He has won an Emmy Award for anchoring and another for investigative reporting, exposing the deceit and potential danger of online diploma mills. Tom has ten other Emmy nominations to his credit for investigative and feature reporting. He has won Associated Press Awards for reporting and anchoring. He has won two Addy Awards for excellence in promotional writing. Tom was the first broadcast journalist in Lexington TV history to be awarded the Silver Circle Award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. It is one of the highest honors given by NATAS. It recognizes television professionals who have performed distinguished service within the television industry for 25-years or more. Tom was honored for more than his longevity, he was recognized for making an enduring contribution to the vitality of the television industry and for setting high standards of achievement. He was also recognized for giving back to the community as a mentor, educator and volunteer. Tom also has network broadcast experience in radio and television having worked as a sports reporter for ESPN, Sportschannel, NBC Sports and the Breeders’ Cup. He was also the studio host and halftime producer for CBS Radio Sports’ College Football Game of the Week and covered the NFL for One-On-One Radio Sports. Prior to joining WTVQ-TV, Tom was Vice-President of the Houston Astros Minor League baseball team in Lexington. He was part of the original management team that brought professional baseball back to the Bluegrass after a nearly 50-year absence. Tom has lived in Lexington since 1984. In that time, he has been heavily involved with dozens of charity and civic groups, with a special emphasis on helping Veterans. He can be reached at You can also follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter @TomKennyNews. Just click on the links at the top of the page.